EDITORIAL - One man's virtue can be another man's vice

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

For the past two weeks, the Peoria Times-Observer reported on the homeless situation in Peoria and East Peoria.

Out of those stories emerged a particularly troubling quote from a homeless man, who identified himself only as "Snake."

“I’ve been homeless in San Diego. It was tough,” the 29-year-old San Francisco native said. “I slept on cardboard over a heating grate in front of an Office Max.”

Snake said help for the homeless in San Diego was “dismal” compared to Peoria.

“Peoria’s set up so it’s easy to be homeless here,” Snake said. “Here you have food pantries, places for the homeless to get clothes, a shower, a warm place to sleep and regular medical care.”

Snake made those comments as he surveyed the Safety Net Shelter in the Sylvia Fites Center of the Salvation Army, which he calls home. More than 20 men were roaming around the large room, watching TV, talking and reading.

In addition to food and shelter, the men receive free medical check-ups and counseling.

“I’d say 80 percent of the men here right now want this lifestyle,” Snake said. “A lot of these men want this lifestyle. They want a free ride, I guess. They have free food and lodging. That’s all most of them here feel they need.”

Those comments did not sit well with some people, and area experts were divided on whether local services to the homeless makes people less likely to pull themselves out of a bad situation.

And, if generosity only provides a man an excuse to be down on his luck permanently, it benefits neither the recipient nor the community.

“There is a fine line,” Glenavary Lucas, director of family services for the Salvation Army, said.

“Our goal is not to be enablers. Our goal is to help every client to become self-sufficient. No one wants to be homeless, maybe 5 percent.”

Dustin Swigart, homeless management information system manager for the YWCA Peoria, said, “Homelessness is not easy. What these people do to stay warm, get fed and clothed is almost a full-time job.”

Swigart said he personally knows 10 to 15 people who have been chronically homeless over the past seven years by their own choice.

“This is their lifestyle, to stay on the street. But, there is nothing easy about it,” he said.

   That point is hard to argue.

  The truth is that there will always be those who abuse the system and take advantage of the kindness of strangers. By choice, they prefer a hand-out over a hand-up.

   But, many homeless people gratefully accept the help offered and struggle back to their feet. Those are the people most programs are designed to aid — and they depend on our support.

    Convincing ourselves that people enjoy being homeless is a cruel and selfish game — and an excuse to be less charitable to our fellow human beings.

    The programs our community offers are important, especially in these troubled economic times. Many experts say a frightening number of people are one paycheck or one crisis away from homelessness themselves.

    Perhaps that is something to keep in mind.